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Mayor Berry: Albuquerque is not a ‘sanctuary city’

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry on Thursday rejected U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ characterization of Albuquerque as a sanctuary city and said it’s the federal government’s job to enforce immigration laws, not the responsibility of local police jurisdictions.

“Albuquerque, New Mexico, is not a city that in your words ‘protects criminals from immigration enforcement,’ and therefore, we are not in your words, a ‘sanctuary city,’ ” Berry wrote to Sessions in a letter Thursday.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

The mayor’s remarks came in response to the attorney general’s threat Thursday morning to withhold federal law enforcement resources from the high-crime cities of Albuquerque, Baltimore and both Stockton and San Bernardino in California. In letters to those chiefs of police, the Department of Justice said if their cities want to take advantage of a new federal crime-fighting assistance program launched in June, they need to prove by Aug. 18 that they are complying with federal directives regarding the detainment of foreign nationals arrested for crimes.

Albuquerque had applied for the program.

Sessions on Thursday noted a high-profile case in Oregon that arose last week in which a person “who had been deported 20 times and was wanted by immigration authorities allegedly sexually assaulted an elderly woman in Portland, a city that refuses to cooperate with immigration enforcement.”

“By protecting criminals from immigration enforcement, cities and states with so-called ‘sanctuary’ policies make all of us less safe,” the attorney general said.

Sessions’ letter to Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden drew immediate rebukes from Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, an Albuquerque Democrat who called the directive “political,” and the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which described Sessions’ approach as “bullying.” Sessions’ announcement came in the same week that President Donald Trump’s administration has renewed its crackdown on unlawful immigration.

In a Journal interview Thursday, Berry said that Albuquerque shed its status as a sanctuary city in 2010 – a year after he took office – and that Sessions’ scrutiny may be more appropriately directed at the Bernalillo County Detention Center, as the city of Albuquerque does not have a jail.

“This may be a misunderstanding on the federal level of who runs our jail,” Berry said.

The dispute stems in large part from the refusal of local police jurisdictions in Albuquerque and other cities to detain arrestees who are foreign nationals until ICE agents can deport them. Berry and other city officials around New Mexico and parts of the U.S. contend it is the federal government’s responsibility to detain and deport those in the country illegally.

But under the Albuquerque policy adopted nearly eight years ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are given a chance to check the immigration status of everyone arrested and detained by city police at the Albuquerque Prisoner Transport Center before they are transferred to the county jail, Berry said. The move ensures that all arrestees are treated equally and that no ethnic groups are singled out, he said.

The city has provided a desk at the transport center for an ICE officer since 2010. Berry told the Journal that the desk was manned by ICE agents in the early years after the policy was adopted but is rarely staffed anymore.

In his letter to Sessions, Berry said the Albuquerque Police Department “does not have the resources to enforce federal immigration laws with our local law enforcement officers, and we have no plans to do so.”

“ICE personnel must perform the screening of individuals arrested for criminal offenses, utilizing ICE information systems and databases to determine which arrestees have ‘immigration holds’ and can then notify Bernalillo County, the government entity that operates the County Jail, of an ‘ICE detainer,’ ” the mayor added.

Sessions’ letter asks in part that police chiefs confirm that their cities have policies in place that require a detainee suspected of being in the country illegally to be held for at least 48 hours to allow ICE officials to take custody. Cities and counties across New Mexico, including Albuquerque – and many across the country – do not have such policies in place.

Sessions and other law enforcement officials in the Trump administration contend that local police departments that don’t cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to detain arrestees who are in the country illegally are fueling violent crime.

“By forcing police to go into more dangerous situations to re-arrest the same criminals, these policies endanger law enforcement officers more than anyone,” Sessions said Thursday. “The Department of Justice is committed to supporting our law enforcement at every level, and that’s why we’re asking ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions to stop making their jobs harder.”

Sessions’ letter also noted that to qualify for the anti-crime program, a city must “have sustained levels of violence that exceed the national average.” Violent crime in Albuquerque rose by more than 25 percent from 2009 to 2015, according to an APD report. There were 206 more violent crimes in Albuquerque in 2016 than in 2015.

Lujan Grisham, an Albuquerque Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, denounced Sessions’ announcement as a “political directive” and said it undermines the work of local police officers.

“This political directive from the Department of Justice threatens to make cities like Albuquerque less safe by forcing local police officers to do the work of federal immigration agents,” said Lujan Grisham, who is running for governor of New Mexico in 2018. “Albuquerque’s police force is chronically understaffed, and officers are already working overtime to combat violent crime in our community.

“Our local law enforcement is better-equipped to target street crime,” she added. “We should support those efforts with more resources, not threats to withhold federal funding.”